It’s surely been a busy year for our team at Ancient Forge Studio, and the fact that we’re launching our blog just now should be evidence enough for that. During this time, both the game and our studio have grown in more ways than one. We’re happy to have you here with us, celebrating our first anniversary!
We started the development of The Tenants all the way back in 2019. In the beginning, our team consisted of 4 people, most of us multitasking to the fullest; it could hardly be called a company back then. After the first two months, we had a working prototype of the game, and coupled with the idea behind it, we were pretty eager to show the project to the public to learn if maybe by any chance we’re the only ones enjoying what we’ve built.
Filled with stress and excitement, we went to Poznań Game Arena, a pretty big gaming event in Poland. With the help of our publisher, Frozen District, we set up a tiny booth with a wonky demo version of The Tenants. To our surprise, people didn’t run away with disgust when faced with their first dive into Wondersville. Most people that gave the demo a try had fully finished renovating their apartment, while some even stayed for a couple more playthroughs. With all the constructive and positive feedback we had received there, we went back to working on the game with even more enthusiasm.
Around that time, The Tenants was gaining traction on Steam, and we were amazed to see a small community of players building around our game. We began posting regular development updates where we described various gameplay mechanics we were implementing at the time and showcased the coolest new assets our artists had produced. They were met with a friendly response from our growing community, which further fueled the development.
We didn’t want our players to rely only on our words and pretty pictures sprinkled here and there. After a few more development milestones, we decided to release a 1-hour public demo version of The Tenants, shortly followed by a longer Free Trial. To say it frankly, we were stunned when we saw over 1600 concurrent players enjoying our game. We were even more surprised to learn that the trial got a whopping 93% positive review ratio!
Around the same time, we had finally switched our Discord community server to public mode and started receiving more truly enlightening feedback from our players. All this allowed us to better prepare for the upcoming release and make crucial changes during that final stretch. And so came the 25th of March.
It was a sunny and cloudless morning in Poland when we… aight, scrap that. To be honest, we didn’t even have the time to look outside the windows to check the weather. Until the last moment, the whole team was in a fixing and testing frenzy, trying to polish up the final build as much as possible before clicking that big, green release button.
Finally, the moment came when we had to halt our last-minute tweaking and let go of the build. We spent the next hours frantically trying to fix every issue reported by the first wave of players. Once the dust had settled a little bit, we switched to hitting that F5 button on our store and stats page over and over again, sitting with a beer in hand waiting for the first results.
And we actually made it! We managed to climb all the way up to the number one spot on the Steam Top Sellers list. Of course, it only lasted for so long, but it was still a great achievement for a small studio like ours.
When the new day rose, we immediately went back to work as that was our plan from the beginning. Taking vacations was only on the cards after making sure the live build was stable and polished. Thus, the next few weeks were filled with reading through tons of feedback, reviews, comments, and reports to determine the most pressing issues. After a month or so, we published the April Update that contained the first batch of new content among some highly demanded features and QoL tweaks.
As mentioned before, we started the game’s development with just four people, and at the time of the EA release, we had nine devs on our team. A whole year later, we now have a great crew of 15 people, all working remotely from the comfort of their armchairs. Recently we even decided to hire a more involved Community Manager that came straight from our community. It’s an example of something that wasn’t a top priority before the release, but now they’re a crucial part of our team.
But that’s not the only way in which our studio grew. We have also made some progress in terms of work organization and planning future updates. To our surprise, developing a game during Early Access is nothing like developing the game before releasing it, and the rhythm that we got used to had to go down the drain, replaced by a new approach. It sure took some learning and crunching to make it all work, as updating a live game is akin to operating on a living organism.
Now though, we’re pretty confident in our workflow, and each following update’s been going smoother than the previous one. Of course, having more devs on board wouldn’t hurt, so we always keep an eye out for new talents, although we’re slowly getting pretty close to our target company size limit of 20.
Before the release, we had spent countless hours discussing if we should go for an Early Access release or delay the whole thing and only do the full release. However, after a year in Early Access, we’re thankful that we made this decision, as we truly believe that it helped the game tremendously.
Since the very beginning of the development, we felt that The Tenants is a pretty unique game, although set in a very familiar theme. We’ve had to make the usually boring job of being a landlord into something playable and entertaining without losing the premise behind it. And without the feedback we’ve gathered during Early Access so far, I’m confident that the game just wouldn’t be as fun as it is now.
Originally we aimed for a cross between a tycoon game and a more creative experience, and as it usually does, it turned out that it’s much better to make up our minds and commit to one or the other. Both the video game devs and the players like to tell themselves that the graphics don’t matter, but it’s just the way it is, that based on the initial presentation of a game, we quickly assume a host of things about it. So, if a game looks like a hardcore FPS, it better damn be a hardcore FPS. With that realization in mind, we’ve turned away from thinking about challenging tycoon gameplay and re-directed our efforts to better align with the community’s reception of the game.
As for more specific examples of how the community has impacted the game, just a few weeks ago, we disabled the tenant trashing mechanic altogether due to popular demand among our players. It’ll make a comeback once we rework the feature to make it fun instead of frustrating. Another example is when we’ve overhauled the renovation jobs and added 90 new ones as a part of the Landlord Update to help with the repetitiveness mentioned in many of the reviews. Likewise, right after our original release, we had to take a sidestep to implement new settings that allow players to adjust which in-game notifications they want to receive.
We can’t know how the game would look if we didn’t decide to release it first as an Early Access title, but we’re sure it would be pretty far from being as good as it is currently. That doesn’t even take into consideration the amount of motivation that our community provides to keep the team working at a great pace.
So to sum it all up, during the year since the Early Access release, we’ve pushed out:
We also celebrated Halloween and Winter by releasing time-limited themed content and events to animate the community and give everyone a chance to share their amazing interior designs. We’re already looking forward to the next one, so get your baskets ready, I tell you.
Occasions like this are a great opportunity to distance yourself from the day-to-day work and look at the whole development process from a broader perspective. So, I’ll try to sum up the most important takeaways from our first year in Early Access. Most of the lessons we’ve learned throughout this adventure relate to releasing big updates, which turned out to be trickier than expected.
I bet we can all agree that hard deadlines for updates that introduce new, major mechanics into the game sound like a pretty bad idea. Once the new feature is reviewed, it often occurs that it actually needs some crucial changes to be playable/fun for the players, or that some localization strings are missing, or perhaps a new tutorial is needed to explain it better. The unfortunate part is that hard deadlines are sometimes unavoidable, as nothing happens in the void, and there are things that you just cannot move (like the various holidays or Steam sales throughout the year). In situations such as these, you basically have three choices:
Pick your poison, I guess 😂
One of the biggest obstacles for us, when working on new updates, is how to organize dev work to go hand in hand with localization efforts. The localization usually takes about two weeks for us, and preferably, the whole update should be done in a single, big batch. This of course causes issues when implementing major new mechanics as mentioned in the previous point. A simple solution would be to cut the number of supported languages until we’re out of Early Access. Still, it’s not something we were willing to do in the end, as we wanted to allow as many people to be able to enjoy our game as possible.
Another thing that goes with the previous two hurdles is onboarding players through the new features and game changes introduced in every bigger update. For us, it was often the case that we only added appropriate tutorial/onboarding sections in a patch sometime after the feature was introduced in a major update. You can prepare a lot of things in hindsight, but tutorials are just not quite one of them.
Well, you can try to predict how exactly the mechanic is going to work and pray that nothing will change in terms of the UX, but then you lock yourself in terms of the feature’s design and usability. And we definitely prefer to have the space to improve a given system and not leave it at the very first iteration.
The bottom line to those issues and many more that I didn’t mention here is the good old dilemma between time and money. Either you can delay the game indefinitely and polish everything to perfection, or like most of us, you’ve got some actual constraints and have to make do with however you can. Though not to say that better organization and planning don’t make this easier, because they definitely do. And that’s what we plan to focus on improving in the following months here at our studio.
We’re excited to see what next year will bring for both The Tenants and Ancient Forge Studio as a whole, and we’re happy to have you accompany us on this ride! Stay tuned for more blog posts as there are many more subjects we’ll be diving into here to give you a more behind-the-scenes perspective on how we operate and how our games come to life. And don’t mention it to anyone, but you can expect some big news around April/May 🤐